Body Matters: Essays on the Sociology of the Body

By Sue Scott; David Morgan | Go to book overview

Chapter 7

The Inverted Gaze

Ruth Waterhouse


Portraits from the Gallery

Eleanor Butler, Sarah Ponsonby, Colette, Gertrude Stein, Radclyffe Hall, Valentine Ackland, Vita Sackville-West. A 'pot-pourri' of women's names; a collection of images, of faces, hands and bodies, of portraits and photographs, iconographies of white, European women in this century and the last. 1 Tainted and stigmatized, set aside and marginalized or regarded as oddities and eccentrics, these women are nevertheless survivors, the visible remnants of a largely invisible tradition-lesbianism. Their 'masculinization', their habit of' cross-dressing', the rumours of 'inversion' and the allegations of 'unnatural practices' which surrounded them, differentiated them from 'real' women and cast them into the role of deviants. What do their one-dimensional images hold for lesbians in the late twentieth century? What significance can we assign to them in the era of Section 28 and the attack on positive imagery 2 ? In what ways do their portraits influence both the construction of our personal identities and the creation of lesbian traditions, histories and mythologies?

What, too, of Jane Pirie and Mariane Woods, Scottish school teachers in the early decades of the nineteenth century? They were the subjects of much scandal, involved as they were in a protracted court case to clear their reputations of something not yet admitted to official discourses, namely female homosexuality. No portrait of them comes down to us but reconstruction work by Federman enables us to read the transcripts of the infamous trial and to put ourselves imaginatively in their places, objects of a judicial gaze which peered beyond them into the privacy of their beds (Federman, 1985).

Let us also consider Anne Lister, or 'Gentleman Jack' as she came to be known. A young woman living near Halifax in the 1820s, she committed her private thoughts, reflections and experiences to paper in the form of diaries: a conventional enough exercise for young ladies at this time, but the contents of the diary were far from conventional. Heavily coded, they contain many references to Anne Lister's lesbian desire and to the responses of other women to that desire. On Monday, the 29th of January 1821, Anne writes,

Burnt Mr Montagu's farewell verses that no trace of any man's admiration may remain. It is not meet for me. I love and only love the fairer

-105-

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